The de-regulation drums are beating. Most of us can hear them, even if for some of us, the luckier ones, the beat is still dull and distant.
The professional status of teaching, which has been growing steadily for a century, may now be reversed. Liberalisation of teaching markets along with the diminishing expectation that all teachers should hold formal qualifications, and the increasing acceptance that teachers need not meet specific and moderated standards of practice, is spreading.
Don’t think you can be quarantined from it. A crude and ideologically infected form of de-regulation is poisoning the profession even in jurisdictions in which it can be said to be in the best possible health. In Australia, from whence I write, professional teaching standards have been supported by all sides of the political spectrum, with great success and real benefits for teachers and students. And yet two weeks ago a government efficiency agency, the Productivity Commission, called for the de-regulation of the teaching market.
This issue is at the necessary centre of international educational policy action. The central theme of educational policy development at the highest levels is the issue of quality teaching. And there are two very broad perspectives available. One is based on principles of coordinated and cooperative action, and another is based on liberal or rationalist precepts.
I’m not going to use any of my word count to point out on which side of this ancient political divide teachers should fall on this occasion. I will say that there is no more significant campaign for the profession internationally than this. What is at stake is the very idea of a profession. A profession is defined in its shared knowledge and expertise, and its shared commitment to defending its standards of practice. The alternative approach is to remove the common reference points for determining the right to be called a teacher.
The two broad approaches to teacher reform reflect a deeper set of values being applied to a common international challenge. The challenge is to lift educational attainment in the context of increasing economic competitiveness. There is increasing awareness among governments of the importance of education to a jurisdiction’s relative competitiveness and prosperity. In a global economy with easily shifting capital flows, the relative advantage of both developed and developing economies is in the quality of the ‘human capital’ which might attract services and creative industry investment, or manufacturing and other industries in developing communities. This makes the quality of education a primary social and economic policy lever. The single most direct policy lever for improving educational attainment is teaching. We teachers may want to emphasise complex contextual factors that influence our effectiveness, but for decades now the story has been a simple one among legislators – lift teaching to lift educational outcomes to lift investment.
The broad approaches to achieving this objective represent archetypal public policy values. The deregulatory approach has been the most common frame for policy reform of the past 30 years. Put crudely, it places trust in the judgments of individuals pursuing their perspective, with dispersed and localised accountabilities. Having been over these decades a focus of political contestation it is perhaps better understood than the regulatory approach represented by formal standards. The regulatory standards approach draws on principles of collective, or at least organised and shared, responsibility and faith in technical expertise. In the case of teaching it also relies on government recognising that expertise.
The principles represented by a regulatory Standards approach go to what constitutes a profession in the first place. The history of professions draws on collective protection of standards on an ethical basis. The idea and history of professions is also closely tied with the establishment and growth of universities. It is also arguable that professional status and formal professional standards draw intrinsically from principles of evidence and observation and order that are inherent in modernity and even enlightenment thinking. Faith in the role of professional judgment and expertise is the one way of acting out science and any other activity that requires expert judgment, whether that be law, engineering or accounting. And in each of these there are statements of practice that act as a common reference point for validating that judgment. It isn’t possible to have a profession without common and agreed standards of practice. Not necessarily as prescriptions, but as bases for connecting judgments and therefore being in professional practice.
The teaching profession is under real and imminent threat even if at the same time it is the strongest it has ever been. While the Standards agenda grows and there are increasing expectations of qualifications to be defined as teacher, there is also an inexorable challenge of deregulation which seeks to reduce effective teaching and learning to noble and fortunate circumstance.
It is a tale of two cities if you like. Or perhaps it is just a post-modern condition. In any case we, teachers around the world, need to get lively. It isn’t only that we live in an interconnected globalised era of rapid communications and trans-national coordination. We’ve all heard that for decades and I suspect for many young teachers that sort of talk comes across as so much progressive and economistic yadda yadda. It is more that we now can’t assume to hold on to the gains of decades, or rely on the manifest evidence of better student outcomes arising from proper teacher preparation and moderated judgment.
At stake is the status of the teaching profession everywhere and the real opportunities of students in all circumstances.